On February 6, 2018, SpaceX made history with the launch of their Falcon Heavy rocket, currently the most powerful rocket in the world. While capturing the attention of people around the world for the launch, many were captivated by the test cargo on-board the demonstration flight. While many inaugural rocket launches are loaded with a block of concrete to minimize loss should something go wrong with the initial flight, SpaceX’s Elon Musk opted to put his Tesla Roadster into space. Musk made the unconventional cargo even more unconventional by putting a mannequin in the driver’s seat, outfitted with a SpaceX spacesuit it is developed for its owned manned missions into space.
Known as “Starman”, the mannequin sat perfectly still in the Roadster’s driver’s seat with one hand/arm on the steering wheel, and the other positioned on the door. The Roadster was also equipped with other “Easter Eggs” on-board: there was a mini Roadster toy on the dash, it too with a mini-Starman in it. A copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is in the glovebox; it is the first of five books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy comedy science fiction “trilogy” by Douglas Adams. The phrase “Don’t panic”, from the book, appears on the center console. In the car is a disk with a digital copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of sci-fi books. Lastly, there’s a plaque in the car engraved with the names of 6,000 SpaceX employees.
“I think it looks so ridiculous and impossible, and you can tell it’s real because it looks so fake, honestly,” Musk said at a press conference after the launch. “We have way better CGI (computer-generated imagery)” than that, describing the view provided by cameras mounted around the space-bound Tesla that streamed images to Earth. The livestream, which was later viewed by millions of people, cut out after about four and a half hours when cameras’ batteries died.
The purpose of the creative cargo was to do more than simply entertain audiences on Earth. The cargo tested the capabilities of the Falcon Heavy and its ability to bring heavy objects to low Earth orbit and beyond. After about 28 minutes into the first flight, the second stage carrying the Roadster shut down its engine, ending the main phase of the Falcon Heavy test flight. The second stage coasted for about 6 hours through Earth’s Van Allen belts, regions of extremely high radiation, as a proving test to customers, such as the US Government, may want such a capaility. After that coast, the stage was re-started, with fuel exhausted to send the Roadstar and Starman deeper into space and closer to Mars.
One hour after the launch, Musk tweeted that the car had “exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the asteroid belt.” The plan was to send the Roadster on an elliptical orbit around the sun, passing by Mars along the way. However, after SpaceX released data on Starman’s orbit on February 7, the analyzed trajectory of the Roadster shows it will pass closer to Mars’ orbit than to an asteroid belt. On a perihelion orbit around the run, the Roadster and its Starman passenger will eventually travel about about 248 million miles from Earth.
“It will essentially be an Earth-Mars cycler,” Musk said, adding that the orbit should bring the Roadster near Mars. There is an “extremely tiny” chance the car could hit the Red Planet, he added.
Even so, because of it’s shape and the nature of the unorthodox cargo, the path of the Roadster may change over time and NASA will keep an eye on it. A NASA database which includes our solar system’s eight planets and their moons, more than 755,000 asteroids, and 3,500 comets is now tracking the special cargo. “We need to have it in our artificial object catalog so that we don’t confuse it with an asteroid discovery in the future,” NASA spokesperson Dwayne Brown said. The roadster is now officially labeled as a “Near-Earth Object”, which is a designation NASA gives to objects that can travel relatively close to Earth.
Using ephemerids provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Gianluca Masi and Michael Schwartz were able to fine-tune the robotic telescope associated with the Virtual Telescope Project and Tenagra Observatories to capture Starman in the Tesla Roadster in space. An animated image of the moving car can be seen here.